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Issue 32 - A clan of impeccable pedigree (Clan Macpherson)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


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A clan of impeccable pedigree (Clan Macpherson)

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of the Clan Macpherson

Are there national characteristics?

Certainly Sassenachs (English or Lowland Scots) used to think that Highlanders were different from themselves and one of those differences was that the Teuchter (Highland Scot) was always droning on about his ancestors.

The main reason for this perception was that it was true. Genealogy was one of the foundation stones of the old Gaelic culture.

It fitted you into the ancient communities and allowed others to know your niche.

Use Gaelic to ask where someone comes from and the literal meaning is subtly different. It is where you belong and is as much about pedigree as it is about place.

Clans, of course, have pedigree at their heart. The Uberancestor of the clans of the central Highlands was Gillichattan Mor – the Big Servant of St Katan. From his four sons came the progenitors of the families, which make up the 16 clans of the Clan Chattan Federation. The youngest was Muriach the parson at Kingussie in the mid 12th century (1153), and the name Macpherson means “son of the Parson.” Such clerics married, had progeny and often managed to place their sons in lands that belonged to the Church. Muriach was no exception.

In many clans the line of the Chief towered above the rest of the kindred in wealth and power. Often such chiefs were ennobled and became national figures remote from their clansfolk. But rather than one pre-eminent line, Clan Muirich had three great branches descending from the three grandsons of the founder.

Again, in many clans the concept of a blood link uniting the kindred was largely illusory, a fiction encouraged to ensure unity, but the Macphersons in Badenoch, their clan country, have a cohesion that means that very few bearing the surname are unconnected. This gives the modern clan society a vigour that is the envy of most.

Much of the early history of the Clan Macpherson is tainted by squabbles with the Mackintoshes about the leadership of the Clan Chattan Federation. The feudal superiority of Badenoch was held by the Gordon earls of Huntly. They saw their interests best served through fomenting dissent, by suggesting the Macintoshes should not be leaders of the Federation since their line came through a woman, whilst the Macphersons’ line was male.

The dispute was legally settled by the signing of a bonds in 1609 and again in 1664, in which the Mackintosh Chief was acknowledged as head of Clan Chattan, but the discord rumbled on for centuries and on several occasions stopped the Macphersons and others of the Federation from supporting the Mackintosh chiefs in times of war.

The Macphersons were Royalists fighting for the Marquis of Montrose in the 17th century. They fought for the Stuarts in the 18th century. Along with the Macgregors, they covered the retreat of the Jacobites from the battlefield of Sheriffmuir in 1715.

When the Black Watch Regiment was formed in 1740, clansmen had joined on the understanding, like everyone else, that it would serve only in Scotland. Then, in 1743, the Regiment was posted to London and the men believed that they were to be sent to the Indies where most would die of fever. So most of them decided to march home.

When the dragoons caught up with them, they submitted peacefully. Three of their number were executed at the Tower of London. Two were Macphersons.

The outrage this created in the Clan was the chief reason for the support given to Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the Rising of 1745. Ewen Macpherson of Cluny – Cluny was the Chief’s estate and this was both his title and his appellation – raised the clan shortly after the Battle of Prestonpans and was soon leading one of the most potent contingents in the rebel army.

Lord George Murray, by far the best of the Prince’s generals, had his own regiment in the Atholl Brigade, but, wherever possible, he pulled in the Macphersons to be alongside. They beat off the Redcoats at Clifton during the retreat north and joined in the Atholl raid in March 1746, as dazzlingly successful an action as anything achieved by Montrose. The Regiment was on its way to rejoin the rest of the army when news came of the defeat at Culloden.

In the aftermath of the Rising, Cluny was high on the list of those wanted by the authorities, having been found guilty of High Treason in the Act of Attainder passed in May 1746. He stayed in Badenoch for nine years sheltered and supplied by his clansfolk before going into exile.

The cave in which he lived while the Redcoats were on hand – Cluny’s Cage – is high on a cliff face above Loch Ericht.

Prince Charles joined him in the cramped space shortly after Culloden. It is said the Prince asked for Cluny’s plaid which was rather thicker than his own and was given a dusty reply.

Acentury and a half later, the cage – and Cluny – received added fame when they were featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped.

Ewen’s son and successor was Duncan of the Kiln, so-called because his mother, a daughter of the decapitated Lord Lovat, gave birth to him in a corn-drying kiln in 1750 where she was living after their house was destroyed by the Redcoats. He joined the army and commanded a battalion in his cousin’s regiment, Fraser’s Highlanders, in the American Revolutionary War. The Cluny estate was restored to him in 1784.

William Macpherson, the Purser of the Clan, was killed with the clan regiment in the front line at the Battle of Falkirk on 17th January 1746, the last Jacobite victory.

His nephew was James Macpherson, the writer of the Ossian poems, who did so much to bring about the rehabilitation of the Highland culture after the proscriptions that followed.

The Purser was the ancestor of the Macphersons of Newton Castle, Blairgowrie and the head of this family today is the charismatic 27th Chief.

Sir William Macpherson, 27th of Cluny and 6th of Blairgowrie, is a retired High Court judge.

Today the Macphersons have one of the most enthusiastic of all the Clan Societies.

Its web address is: is the website of the Macpherson Clan’s excellent museum at Newtonmore which is the focus of the annual clan gathering.